In his essay entitled “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson extols the virtues of, essentially, non-conformity to the conventions, expectations, and dictates of society. Midway through his essay, he penned a paragraph that contains an oft-quoted proverb on consistency:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With
consistencya great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speakwhat to-morrowthinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thingyou said to-day.–‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’–Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood .[note]https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/selfreliance.html[/note]
Meanwhile, others tend to expect consistency from us, because, as Emerson explains: “the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts.” To appear as inconsistent to others is to be unpredictable, hence society trains people to be reliable, predictable, etc. Consistency is a virtue,
And yet, great men, in Emerson’s eyes, fail to hold to an unthinking consistency. They march to the beat of their own drum, you might say. But let’s also recognize, some forms of mental disorders exhibit characteristics of inconsistency. People afflicted with schizophrenia can be quite inconsistent and unpredictable, which makes them so frightening to people at
But let’s look at the other side of this, for a moment. Is consistency truly the virtue that we tend to think it is? Obviously, predictable people are easier for us to work with, but there are disorders that are also associated with consistency. For instance, people with OCD often times obsess about anything that is off-kilter, that doens’t fit the pattern they expect. So, is consistency a virtue or a vice?
So what of consistency and inconsistency? Which is good and which is bad? Neither is automatically good or bad. Daniel Siegel presents in it Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, the metaphor of the river of integration where there are two banks on the sides you want to avoid in chaos and its opposite of rigidity.1
Chaos is the unpredictable patterns, whereas rigidity entails unchanging patterns. According to this metaphor for mental health, one wants to trek through the middle to find wellness.
But as much as I value this perspective, allow me to demythologize the metaphor of integration and put its significance into what I believe to be its appropriate psychological context. Integration isn’t some secret of the universe or even of our spiritual life. Rather, it is the pattern of life where we on average will experience the least amount of problems, struggles, and crises. By being flexible, we can adapt to the unique circumstances of everything event we face. By being consistent, we can connect the experiences from one event to others to help us respond more effectively to similar events. Thus, the middle is the pathway of least resistance, allowing us to learn from the past while at the same time allowing us to pay attention to the present.
But let me propose something: what it is that you notice in your present experience and the type of connections you make from your past experiences to the present is determined by your desires. Your deepest wants, values, longings, etc. unconsciously significance what aspects of your experience you pay attention and consider significant. We are looking to see whether things will go the way we wish and hope they will, or if they are headed towards a direction we fear and are anxious about.
I make this point to say this: the middle between chaos and integration is not necessarily the pathway towards anything that is ultimately true and good beyond what we ourselves would believe to be true and good. Rather it is the pathway to effectively realizing our own desires. Of course, along the way, our own desires may change due to our experiences, where we find what we previously cherished isn’t as important as we thought, such as that position you wanted not being what you thought it would be, and we discover something we were deeply missing but never realized it, such as unexpectedly falling in love. But, these changes to our desires tend to be more incremental, making small adjustments along the way, even if we are not consciously aware of them until a later, moment where the epiphany is reached where we thought we wanted and what we actually wanted had become different. These epiphanies are dramatic shifts in self-awareness, but not dramatic shifts in who we ultimately who we are as persons; we make smaller these smaller, almost always
Put differently, the river of integration enables a basic-level of consistency and continuity of our desires and how we attempt to acquire these over the course of time.
However, what if our desires are not what is ultimately good? What if, as the
What does this mean about dramatic change? It means there isn’t a nice middle pathway that will get us there, but it will take us through the unpredictable experiences that will cause experiences of rigidity in one instance and chaos in another instance. It means that it can make us look either like a great and moral person, or a dangerous and inconsistent person, depending on what the people around us value and expect from us. Whatever consistency may be there on the surface, will be repeatedly punctuated with routine events of disequilibrium that others can not predict or grasp and will make you stand out, for better or worse.
In other words, consistency is not always a
But lest someone mythologize the principle of reversal as some deep secret of the universe, of God, etc., the usefulness of the principle of reversal itself is itself only circumstantial. Furthermore, if God is at work and in specific
So, if the transformation of desire is necessary for the pursuit of God, but it can often
The answer I have come to the question is this: God is not the direct cause of these experiences of disequilibrium that can so dramatically change the way we think and feel, but rather through his leading hand and for believers, the leading of the Holy Spirit, uses the way the world can throw us into these crises and molds them in a different direction and can even lead us into those situations. God didn’t send Joseph into slavery and prison, but He used these events. God didn’t persecute Paul in his various missionary trials or give him his thorn in the flesh, but God allowed them to occur so that He could use them. This fits the pattern of God’s love that is most clearly demonstrated on the cross: God didn’t crucify his own Son but He did send him to this but through the
[As a side note, this may not seem a satisfactory answer to either the more extreme Calvinist who says God ordains everything that happens or the opposite reaction against Calvinism that tries to dissuade us that God never leads us into pain. But I would suggest it is the most consistent explanation of the whole Biblical narrative, at least as it seems to me because it is the most consistent explanation of my own experience.]
So, the difference between the Gospel and the cults are this: cults manufacture crises that produce a pseudo-spiritual experience. When we follow Jesus through the leading of the Holy Spirit, we often times walk into and are lead into situations that will create these crises within ourselves, and through challenging them, unleash the dynamics of a crisis that the present order had kept managed and checked.
So, as followers of Christ being lead by the Holy Spirit, we are often thrown into events that challenge the middle ground of the river of integration, that will lead us into periods of unpredictable vacillation between chaos and rigidity, that will transform our desires, that can make us look either like a visionary or deranged. But, when God is at work, these events are used to lead into a new normal, a new consistency, a new pattern that may look entirely unfamiliar from the outside because our hearts have been dramatically changed towards the direct of the Spirit, rather than simply another configuration of desires of the flesh. So, the appearance of inconsistency may remain after the change, but this is because people rarely understanding people who have dramatically different values on the surface. In this sense, then, being transformed into the glory of Christ will entail appearing inconsistent, but it has its own inner consistency that is not always readily apparent to others at first glance.
However, as those who seek to apprentice others into following Christ and being lead by the Spirit, we do not create the events that cause such a pronounced disequilibrium to try to create this
To conclude: if this seems abstruse, a difficult train of thought to follow, or overly abstract, I will say it is necessary because there is a tendency to connect psychological dynamics with Spiritual